San Francisco, Day 6

San Francisco Zen Center, Nuova Porziuncola, Saints Peter and Paul

San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Another early day began at 8:30 in the morning, arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center. Saturdays are community days at this Sangha, one of the largest ouside of Asia. This center, in the Soto Zen tradition, was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his American students. Some eighty residents live, work and practice in this place. Zazen training for beginners happens every Saturday at 8:40 and it’s taught by one of the priests. I was surprised to see such a large group gathered so early on a Saturday morning to learn the basics of sitting meditation. For over an hour we were taught several sitting postures as well as the principles of meditation. In the end, we got to sit zazen for a short period of ten minutes.

It is also on Saturdays that dharma talks are given. These talks are also available to the community as well as broadcasted via the web. Following zazen instruction, the room was rearranged for the talk. Before long, people started to arrive and the room was soon at capacity. Today’s talk was given by Kiku Christina Lehnherr, a senior dharma teacher and former abbess of the Center. I’m so grateful to have heard this teaching in person and you can watch it here (there were some technical difficulties, skip to minute 4:00 for the beginning of the talk).

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

My day at the SFZC was only halfway through and it had already been a wonderful time. There was a break of about fifteen minutes following the talk during which people mingled throughout the center with cookies and tea. This is a very vibrant community with everything from first time visitors to seasoned masters. It was lovely being in their midst. It was time for forms training and I was very eager for this particular class. My experience with zen is very limited and this class walked us through the particular forms for entering and sitting in the zendo. The zendo is the meditation hall where zen practitioners sit for extended periods of group meditation. There are specific ways of entering the room, finding your place and sitting. There are clear reasons for these prescribed behaviors in the zendo, as our teacher explained, and they all have to do with an intentional and mindful approach to the practice. There is no penalty for entering the zendo with your right foot instead of your left, as is the form. Rather, one should act accordingly as part of the practice. Every aspect of zen practice is carefully undertaken in an effort to be as present and mindful as one can possibly be.

After forms training, we were all invited to stay for lunch, and I’m so glad I did. It was during communal lunch that I got to visit with new and experience buddhists from all over the country and the world. People come to the SFZC from all over. They live and work here, and they practice together, every day from before sunrise until dark. There is plenty of work to be done, in the kitchen, around the facilities, and at Green Gulch farm which is about an hour away from the center. Some students stay for a week and others have been living there for years. Enguetsu, a practitioner from Brazil, is here for her second stay. I learn about her journey to Zen and her work at the center; and I learn the meaning of her dharma name: En (empty) Guetsu (moon). We visit for a while and then it’s time to move on. This is one of those (many) times when I wish I’d found Buddhism at an earlier age. I would have loved to have been a resident at a place like this.

photo 4

La Nuova Porziuncola

I headed for North Beach in the afternoon, where I visited the Nuova Porziuncola in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Nuova Porziuncola is a scale replica of the Porziuncola in Assisi. This is the church Saint Francis rebuilt after hearing God’s voice before the crucifix of San Damiano. The Nuova Porziuncola is a work of art and a sacred space. Every day people visit and stay to pray and reflect. I wouldn’t have known to visit had it not been for the kind lady at the St. Mary’s Cathedral bookshop. She insisted I should visit the Porziuncola, and I’m so happy I did. The Nuova Porziuncola was built with exacting standards. The stones are from the same area in Assisi as those of the original, the marble floors are reclaimed from a church in Assisi, and the frescoes are exact replicas, too. I knelt inside the Porziuncola, admiring the simplicity and beauty of its design. I wondered, if it is possible to feel such a sense of peace and wonder in this replica, what must it be like to visit the original in Assisi?

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.



PEOPLE: It just works

“I started having anxiety problems as a teenager. I tried medication and it made me a crazy person, so I got off the medication. I was looking for ways to deal with my anxiety. It was crippling, I couldn’t be around people at all. And then I learned about meditation,” replied Daniel Scharpenburg when I asked how he found Buddhism.

Daniel speaks deliberately. As I listen back to the recording of our interview, I’m surprised to find it’s only a little over thirty minutes and about a third of it is silence. There are long pauses between my questions and his answers, they are intentional and verging on awkward. And yet, they speak volumes.

He grew up with Christian parents, but he admits they weren’t particularly devout. He left the faith purely out of boredom and he wasn’t religious at all when he found meditation at the age of 22. “I started trying it, and I didn’t really know anything about it, but I found that it was working. So, I started reading numerous books about meditation and trying to learn more about it. Ultimately I learned about Buddhism and I’ve never looked back, I guess.”

"Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating," says Daniel Scharpenburg

“Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating,” says Daniel Scharpenburg

I’m curious, was it not enough to meditate? Why bring Buddhism into it? He pauses for what seems like an eternity. “I guess I wanted context. I wanted history and stories about meditation,” he says. He tells me his practice is not based on ritual and it’s not particularly devotional. He explains that while he can learn a lot by sitting on the cushion, there is so much to learn off it, too.

The image of a person sitting alone on a mountain top or sandy beach, cross-legged, hands resting on knees and eyes closed; that’s what we tend to associate with meditation. But for Daniel, having a meditation community was essential. “I was the only Buddhist I knew and I was alone and I wanted to meet great people,” he tells me. He wasn’t sure at first that the Rime Center would be the place for him, being that it is a Vajrayana center which to him meant chanting, bowing and praying, and he wasn’t interested in that.

Once he started attending, he realized it was not as ritualistic as he had thought and he stuck around. “We have lots of good visiting teachers that come through and I really value that because they come from all sorts of Buddhist traditions. I’ve met all sorts of people that I could never have met on my own,” he says.

But he didn’t just stick around, he soon became an essential part of the Rime Center’s community. For a few years now, Daniel has been in charge of the center’s Dharma School. Children ages four and up gather in the upper room of the Center every Sunday morning while their parents congregate in the shrine room below. This is where our conversation is taking place, a large, sun-bathed room with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. In just under an hour, children (including his daughter and son) will start filing in.

Daniel never set out to work with children. “It kind of happened to me,” he explains. He became interested in the program only after his kids had been participating in it. Soon enough, the person in charge moved on and a friend of Daniel’s assumed responsibility of the program. That’s when he started helping out and eventually that friend moved on as well. “Why do I still do it? I guess I could just quit,” he says. And then, after a pause, he continues, “As I said, I suffer from anxiety and I see some of those tendencies in my daughter so I want her to have a meditation practice if she wants to use it…I want her to have better tools than I had.”

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more anxiety-inducing than being responsible for a group of children. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do this and he does it as a volunteer, week after week. He laughs when I ask how he does it.

“I have to be really patient. I tell them not to run and they run. I have to exercise patience and it’s good for me. It is at times overwhelming,” he says, as calmly as a sleeping child. His children enjoy it, and that’s his main reward. He admits that sometimes he enjoys it, too. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m doing something that benefits the community. Lots of volunteers at the Rime Center do harder things than this.”

When Daniel mentions that bringing his children to Dharma School gives his spouse a morning off, I ask whether she herself attends. I learn she’s not a Buddhist. “She knows Buddhism helps me, and she is supportive,” he says. I press a bit further, I want to hear something about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-faith family; surely there are many, I think. Another long pause, and then he says, “The thing about Buddhist values is that there’s not a lot to complain about. It’s compassion, concentration, being kind to others and loving each other. So, she’s pretty comfortable. Ultimately if the children want to be Buddhists when they grow up, that’ll be up to them.”

When it comes to Buddhism, there are those who assert that it is a religion and those who contend it is not. Daniel isn’t sure either way, “I’m not sure what a religion is. I’m not concerned with God and I’m not concerned with my life after death. So, for those reasons a lot of people don’t think it’s a religion. Sometimes I think it is, though because it does inform a lot of my life. I write about it a lot, I meditate every day, I talk about it a lot. So, I don’t know if that’s a religion or not, but it’s something I’m really devoted to.”

Daniel teaches meditation outside of the Rime Center as well. He has led a weekly group at the Evolving Center for some time now. I ask why he does this and he tells me, “because you get something from meditating in a group, different than meditating alone. And you definitely get something out of meditating with adults rather than children because children can only do about six minutes. So when you meditate in a group it inspires you to be better at focusing. If I’m meditating at home, by myself, I can stop and watch Netflix and nobody will know. But if I’m meditating in a group and I stop, everyone will know.”

I realize I heard nothing after the part when he said children can only meditate about six minutes. WHAT?! It took me forever to get to five minutes, is he serious?

I ask to clarify: did he mean to imply he can get children to sit still for six minutes? In true zen fashion, he replies, “I can.”

Okay, I’m going to need a bit more than that. He obliges, “Part of it is when kids see other kids do it, they’re more inclined to do it themselves. My four year old son doesn’t do it. He meditates for three minutes with me before bed, but he can’t do six minutes. Most kids can, though, if they see other kids doing it.”

When I ask how Buddhism brings meaning into his life, he takes a little longer to answer. He tells me about compassion, and he tells me how because of his practice he’s better equipped to not say hurtful things when an argument arises, and he concludes that Buddhism has helped him make better decisions. He pauses and then says, “Meaning, though…well, we’re all suffering and we’re all dying, right? Buddhism doesn’t promise me heaven or an afterlife, but it does remind me that we’re all in it together. So, that’s the meaning it brings to me.”

One of the reasons some consider Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion is that there is no deity. I ask what this means to him. “The importance of Buddha is that he was a person, and so we can do this, because we’re people, too. And in fact we have a lot of resources he didn’t have. Well, he didn’t have as many distractions as we have, but we can look up any sutra in history because of the Internet and we have meditation timers. We can do many things he couldn’t do, so the path is available to us. I think of Buddhism as very positive because a human being did it, so we can do it.” When I ask about the notion of God, he says, “Some people see the interconnectedness of all things and they call that God. I think that’s fine and it’s very profound. But, I don’t know. If I’m supposed to know, I think I’ll find out. But I’m not looking for God.”

The interview will end soon; children will start walking in any minute now, so I ask my last question, “What are you grateful for?” He jokes that he’s grateful for hot showers and soap. And then he says, “I feel like the world is only getting better. Sometimes we think it’s not because we see the news or we hear things from people. But I think the world is only getting better, even if it may not be getting better as fast as we want. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I think that’s true.”

At the time of our interview, that was exactly what I needed to hear. Now, a few weeks later, I find I needed to hear that even more.

 One more thing… Be sure to check out Daniel’s blog here and learn more about his meditation group here.

New York, Day 2

Mahayana Buddhist Temple, The Village Zendo, The Wall Street Synagogue, Prayer Space NYC, 9/11 Memorial, St. Joseph House Catholic Worker, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, Bhakti Center.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

There was a woman standing in front of the massive statue of the Buddha at the Mahayana Temple. She made a short bow and started to walk out. We made eye contact and I quietly asked if she was a Buddhist. “No, I’m a Catholic, but I can certainly see the similarities,” she said. I asked if she could explain. She pointed at the panels along the sidewalls depicting the life of the Buddha and continued, “I see the Buddha’s birth and it reminds me of Christ’s birth. Buddha’s temptation, Christ’s temptation, fasting and teaching, and so on.” She asked if I was a Buddhist, I said yes but not in the Mahayana tradition. With a puzzled look she said, “There are different kinds?” “Yes,” I replied, “another similarity! Just as there are different denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of Buddhism.” She smiled, started to leave and said, “You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.” I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t care to be filmed, but I immediately wrote everything down.

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Yu Jin Steele is a long time practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I ran into her outside the elevator, on our way to The Village Zendo, which is housed in a suite on the 11th floor of a Soho building. I learned all about her teachers and their lineage, and I learned that her husband and her children practice as well. At some point she mentioned that many of the day time practitioners at Village Zendo are not as interested in the religious aspects of Zen and prefer to focus on meditation only. Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion depends on whom you ask. So I asked her.

The Village Zendo

The Zendo

“It is a religion because it involves faith. You may not believe in God, but you have to believe that sitting on your ass is going to do something. And well, sitting doesn’t really do anything, but the point is you have to believe,” she said. I asked if her practice ever took her into a different plane, perhaps something mystical or otherworldly, as many religions do. “I’m always on a different plane,” she replied, as if to imply that that’s the problem. “What I need to do is be here, awake,” she continued. And that’s what the practice does, it grounds you. It is not an escape or a withdrawal to another state of mind, it is working toward being fully present here and now. “It’s an inside job,” she said smiling.

This is the only photo I took.

This is the only photo I took.

My experience at the Wall Street Synagogue was a bit of a wake-up call. But the truth is I needed one. I needed to be reminded that I can’t just walk into any house of worship I fancy and expect to be welcomed with fanfare. Nothing bad happened, really. It’s just that I felt terribly out of place. The moment I walked in, I could tell that the twenty or so men gathered for Mincha knew I didn’t belong there. I was the only one there without a yarmulke, which made me feel like I stood out, like I was being disrespectful and like I was naked. A very kind man discretely offered me a yarmulke from a basket, “Would you like this?” he said. “Yes, thank you,” I replied and put it on. Mincha is meant to be “an oasis of spiritual time in a tough workday, a moment of calming nerves and focusing on priorities.” I was mortified I might be ruining it for the others. But as we walked out, I briefly spoke with the cantor and that made me feel much better. He pointed me to the office where all my questions would be asked, and all was well in the end. The good news is that I’ve actually been invited to the next synagogue I will visit.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree

Visiting the September 11 Memorial is a very powerful and moving experience. The truth is I can’t find the words to express what I felt, and I don’t really want to try. Some things are better left unspoken. What I can say is that I was struck by the imposing size of the voids in the ground, the photographs don’t do it justice. One thing that caught my attention and that I could have easily missed was the Survivor Tree. This is a tree that, although severely injured, survived and recovered from the attacks at the World Trade Center. It has become a sort of relic; people leave flowers at its foot and others touch its limbs in a reverential manner. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to visit this important and most definitely sacred site.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until today my knowledge of the Catholic Worker movement was little to none. A few weeks ago I asked my friend Lance if he knew of any churches or religious organizations in New York that were in line with his philosophy of ministry. Without hesitating, he told me to go to St. Joseph House Catholic Worker. So I did. A man named Matt opened the door and let me in. The dining hall was empty and clean, ready for the next meal. He was busy chopping lettuce and preparing other dishes. He told me all about the Catholic Worker philosophy, about the notion of instilling in individuals a sense of working and thinking. He talked to me about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, about their view that one should follow works of mercy. The people that live and work in this house, as in many other Catholic Worker houses, feed the hungry and clothe the needy in their communities. They also offer showers and other help. Matt gave me a quick crash course as he wiped down the counters and tidied the kitchen. He suggested I visit the Maryhouse, which is located a couple blocks away. He called to let them know I was coming.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker. Photo of Dorothy Day in the background.

Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. On May 1st, 1933, she and Peter Maurin published the very first Catholic Worker newspaper. The Maryhouse has been a house of hospitality for many years. As you walk through the main door there are stairs that lead down to the dining hall and stairs that lead up to an auditorium, an office and a small chapel. The floors above are living quarters. Dorothy Day lived and worked in this very house until her passing in 1980. I sat in the small chapel, no bigger than the average dining room, and made a mental picture since I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. There were about fifteen chairs, a crucifix, a few icons (one depicting Dorothy Day), and a couple of armoires along the back wall. At the front of the chapel there was an altar table, the very table upon which Dorothy Day was placed for her wake. I sat there quietly for a while, taking it in. And then a woman popped her head in and introduced herself. She pronounced my name in very good Spanish and mentioned she had spent some time in Mexico. Her name is Jane Sammon; she lives and works in the Maryhouse and is one of the associate editors of The Catholic Worker. She showed me into the office and into the archives for the paper, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary.

“Ora et labora” is a Benedictine motto by which the Catholic Worker lives. Pray and work. People in these house communities work together and live together; there are shifts and duties to be shared and plenty of work to be done. And it is an ideological movement as well, “We are a pacifist movement,” she tells me, “the left leaning side of Catholicism.” She is on her way out and she has already given me so much of her time, so I ask one last question, “How is the work you do informed or influenced by your faith?” She tells me that many of the workers, although not all, are Catholic. “In this house we have prayer every single night. We say the hourse, which are part of the Benedictine tradition,” she tells me. “Do we force people to go to mass? No! We’re a freedom-loving community. But the work cannot continue without a life of prayer and I think there are still many of us who believe that.”

Adigopi Priya Dasi

Adigopi Priya Dasi

I had not intended to visit the Bhakti Center. Upon leaving the Maryhouse, I decided to stop for a bit of nourishment at a juice bar on my way back to the hotel. It was late and I hadn’t eaten all day. While I waited for my juice, I spotted a business card for the Bhakti Center. I picked it up and read the Hare Krishna chant on the back. The server at the juice bar told me the Center was only a couple blocks away, so I decided to check it out. Over the past couple of months I have experienced some rather serendipitous things and this was certainly one of them. The Bhakti Center’s ground level is a store front stocked with books, instructional materials, clothing and other artifacts. At the back is a vegetarian restaurant and tables. There are many programs offered at the Center; yoga, meditation, teaching, festivals and Kirtan. A woman managing the storefront asked if I needed any help. I told her I knew nothing about Bhakti and was eager to learn. She was most gracious and eventually introduced me to her friend and fellow devotee, Adigopi Priya Dasi. We chatted for a good long while.

I learned that Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul, which is pure, continuous love of God. Bhakti arises from India, from the study of the Gitas and the practices of chanting mantras and devotional yoga. Adigopi’s first experience with Bhakti came at the age 18 in Hollywood, California where she witnessed a group of Bhakti devotees (you know them as Hare Krishnas) chanting and dancing along Hollywood Boulevard. She bought a magazine from them and was deeply inspired by what she read in it. Eventually she became a devotee herself and was initiated. She was so generous with her time and her explanation of Bhakti, but she hoped her teacher, Radhanath Swami would come down so she could introduce me. “You really should meet him,” she said.


Radhanath Swami

Soon enough Radhanath Swami entered the room and Adigopi took me up to meet him. With a very warm and peaceful smile he reached out and hugged me. He then held my hands and said it was very good to meet me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man and I felt humbled. We sat down and had a brief, but very rich, visit. I learned that he was only in New York for a brief visit as he lives and works in Mumbai, India where he has established a number of Ashrams (centers for spiritual teaching) where around 10,000 people study and practice. He also oversees environmentally-conscious water harvesting operations as well as other initiatives as part of an eco-village. He tells me that the leading cause of illiteracy in India is hunger, so his organization feeds over 300,000 children a day. I find this beyond amazing.

I tell him I want to know more about Bhakti, could he tell me what the essence of this faith is? “Everyone is looking for happiness. Happiness is within ourselves,” he says measuredly. “Religion is a word that means ‘to bind back,'” he continues. “And, yoga means ‘to reconnect’ with our true essence, to love God.” I ask him how one expresses a love of God, what does that look like in practice? “One way is chanting the names of God. That helps us reconnect with God and we live our life in that connection.” When I have an opportunity to meet with clergy, I like to inquire about their views on interfaith work. “There are different aspects of God, but there is only one God,” he says. “Sun, Sol, Surya; they are different languages but they all mean Sun. Different religions are the manifestation of one truth, of harmony with God.” As our time together draws to a close, he pauses for a moment and says, “What Jesus taught was Bhakti. The prayers of St. Francis, that’s Bhakti. Bhakti is to serve with devotion.”

You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.